7 Killed in Jharkhand Over Pathalgadi: What Is the Movement About?

The killings follow Hemant Soren’s decision to withdraw all the sedition cases against the Pathalgadi activists.

Published
India
3 min read
What is the Pathalgadi movement? When did it start? And how is it being used as a tool of political protest in Jharkhand by tribals?
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Seven people were taken hostage and killed in a village in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, allegedly by supporters of the Pathalgadi movement. The killings – which reportedly took place on Sunday, 19 January, were the result of rivalry between supporters of the Pathalgadi movement and those opposed to it. This came just days after the Hemant Soren-led JMM government announced the withdrawal of the sedition cases against Pathalgadi activists.

So, what is the Pathalgadi movement? When did it start? And how is it being used as a tool of political protest in Jharkhand by tribals?

What is Pathalgadi?

Pathalgadi – meaning “carving a stone” – is an ancient tradition among the tribal communities in Jharkhand. According to the custom, erecting a huge engraved stone marks the death of a person.

This was first used to create political awareness when the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Area) Act or PESA came into force in 1996. According to the Act, people living in the Fifth Schedule Areas of India are ensured self-governance through gram sabhas to “safeguard and preserve traditions and customs of the people, and their cultural identity.”

The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution deals with the administration and control of Scheduled Areas as well as of Scheduled Tribes.

Tribal activists like BD Sharma and Bandi Oraon decided to use the “pathalgadi” tradition to spread awareness about the PESA Act. They did this by engraving the provisions of the PESA Act on 15-feet long and four-feet wide, green-painted stones.

These stone plaques are still reportedly found in four districts in Jharkhand – Khunti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum. They are found at the entry of villages and often prohibit outsiders from entering the village.

Why did Pathalgadi become a political movement?

The Pathalgadi movement was revived to protest tribal land rights in May 2016, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Jharkhand introduced amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act 1949. The two Acts prohibited transfer of tribal land to non-tribals as well as commercial use of tribal land. Ordinances introduced by the BJP sought to change that. According to the new amendments, governments could procure land from tribals for commercial use, without the permission of the gram sabha.

In response, stone plaques were installed in villages of Khunti district with the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution engraved on them. This was a reminder of the autonomy provided to the gram sabha and the tribal communities as per the Constitution of India. Soon, the Pathalgadi movement spread to other tribal districts in Jharkhand and even to the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.

The Jharkhand Assembly passed the ordinances in June 2017, causing protests by tribal communities and opposition from political parties like the Congress and the JMM. In August 2017, the two amended Bills were withdrawn.

How did the police react to the Pathalgadi movement?

By filing sedition cases. In November 2019, Scroll.in reported that the Jharkhand Police had filed sedition cases against more than 10,000 people between June 2017 and July 2018 in Khunti district. Under the sedition law, the people were booked for “exciting, or attempting to excite feelings of disaffection against the government.”

But the new Hemant Soren-led JMM government dropped all sedition cases against those involved in the Pathalgadi movement in December 2019 and those booked in protests against CNT and SPT amendments.

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